Most children want to be a superhero when they grow up. Not Billy Tang. He wanted to be Vincent van Gogh. “I wanted to go outdoors with an easel and paint everything I saw,” he says. The Chinese Vietnamese art connoisseur and executive director of the contemporary art centre Para Site always knew he would work in the realm of art and design.
Tang, who was born in London, graduated from the revered Chelsea College of Arts and moved to Beijing in 2013. Although he started out as an artist at the beginning of his career, he soon found he preferred to call the shots from behind the scenes with curatorial work. “I realised that I didn’t always have to be the author of the work. When I was an artist, sometimes it would take a whole year to make one single piece of art. It was torturous,” he says.
Putting together inspiring exhibitions is where Tang’s passion lies, and his background as an artist helps him see things from a creator’s perspective. “I try to be as artist-centric as possible. I like to delve deep into the artist’s work to get a sense of how their mind operates, and I’m very big on the scenography of an exhibition and how it’s staged,” he says.
An early fascination with the provocative and influential Young British Artist (YBA) movement in London in the late 1980s and early 1990s proved pivotal. Those within the movement, now some of the world’s most famous artists, including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, used shock as an artistic device and staged shows in discordant surroundings, such as vacant offices and industrial buildings, which opened Tang’s eyes to how the definition of an exhibition could be fluid. “My generation was inspired by [the YBAs’] can-do spirit and the idea that anywhere could be a site for an exhibition. I’m driven by the utopian potential of art to create new environments that allow us to think in a different way,” he says.
Tang’s appointment to Para Site, taking over from Cosmin Costinas, who held the position for 11 years,
was confirmed in May. The 26-year-old non-profit organisation, one of Hong Kong’s oldest art institutions, will benefit from Tang’s wealth of experience in Asia, from Beijing, where he spent five years at Magician Space, an artist-run gallery, steering its programme to reach a global audience, to a stint at Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum, where he was appointed senior curator.
Of the many shows Tang has curated, the highlights include a solo exhibition with Liu Chuang, which explored China’s unprecedented urban flux in the 1980s because of the open-door policy; Trancing Lap Hung, an exhibition in Huangbian Station in Guangzhou that he worked on with artist Tan Jing in 2020; and the 2019 collaboration between Rockbund Art Museum and Para Site on Opera for Animals, of which he is especially proud. The latter show featured 53 artists and explored how both contemporary and traditional uses of performance, fantasy and group spectacles are affected by the environments they inhabit.
Under Tang’s watch, Para Site is evolving from an artist-led collective to wider, exhibition-centred projects, yet Tang remains coy on the details. “I’m looking to challenge the binary between solo and group exhibitions. There will be presentations with the artist duo Amy Lien and Enzo Camacho, and another with pioneering [performance and installation] artist Aki Sasamoto. I’m sharing some snippets of what lies ahead, but we also want to maintain a healthy degree of unpredictability,” he says.